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ISS TODAY OP-ED

South Sudan political heads agree inter-party dialogue is critical in wrapping up transition phase

South Sudan political heads agree inter-party dialogue is critical in wrapping up transition phase
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit (Photo: EPA-EFE/Angelo Carconi)

As happened in 2022, elections could again be postponed. What should the proposed dialogue do differently to break the cycle? 

The feasibility of South Sudan’s December 2024 elections — the first since the country gained independence in 2011 — is increasingly in doubt. Neither the electoral nor security infrastructure required for credible polls is in place, and the main contenders disagree about the best course of action.

Nine months isn’t enough to complete pre-election tasks that include drafting a permanent constitution and putting to work vital election-related institutions such as the Political Parties Council, National Elections Commission and National Constitutional Review Commission. These were established in November 2023 but aren’t yet fully operational due largely to a lack of funding.

Getting these institutions off the ground will be difficult during South Sudan’s May-September rainy season, which makes road transport difficult and impedes election activities such as voter registration — scheduled to happen in June.

The country’s security environment also isn’t favourable to free and fair elections. There are tensions and conflicts in several states due to intercommunal violence, military confrontations between government and opposition armies/militias, and attacks on communities. South Sudan lacks a unified national police force, and only a fraction of the new Necessary Unified Forces — comprising government and rebel fighters — have been deployed, owing to funding constraints.

Read more in Daily Maverick: UNMISS critical to free and fair South Sudan elections overshadowed by threats of violence

In March, the government and opposition officially expressed their divergent views regarding the feasibility of holding elections under the current circumstances. President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Government (SPLM-IG) has rejected another extension of the transitional period. It has called for dialogue among the parties to determine the appropriate type of elections to hold.

The party says South Sudan doesn’t need a permanent constitution to conduct polls, since the 2011 transitional constitution is still in effect. But due to budgetary restraints, the presidential and executive elections may need to be prioritised for December, with parliamentarian elections delayed until next year.

The main opposition party, SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), favours an extension of all polls due to the lack of readiness. However, it also advocates for a dialogue on how to conduct consensus-based elections.

The South Sudan Opposition Alliance, a coalition of nine opposition political parties and armed groups, has voiced its preparedness for a general election as planned. It said South Sudanese were fatigued with transitions and called for dialogue among parties to the peace agreement to ensure a smooth and lawful transition of power.

Despite their differences, South Sudan’s political actors agree on the importance of dialogue to achieve consensus on the next steps. This stance is also supported by the independent body tasked with monitoring and evaluating the peace agreement’s implementation. The agreement’s guarantors — the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and African Union (AU), as well as South Sudan’s partners such as the United Nations — also consider it a positive step towards finding a viable solution.

Transition extension concern

Dialogue is crucial to establishing actionable guidelines and a timetable for what the unity government must do to enable peaceful and legitimate elections. But South Sudan now faces the same situation as in August 2022, when it wasn’t ready for the December 2022 elections, forcing an extension of the transition timetable.

What should the proposed dialogue do differently this time to ensure that voting can proceed and rescue the country from transition as a form of governance?

In contrast to the previous dialogue process, which lacked sufficient consultations with guarantors, partners and the donor community, these talks must have stakeholders’ support. While South Sudan’s parties aren’t required to consult with stakeholders on amending the peace agreement, doing so could help ensure compliance and execution of election preparations.

The role of the guarantors and partners allows a more effective carrot-and-stick approach from the international community — providing political support while monitoring progress and exerting pressure. This can happen through individual state action or as part of the AU-Igad-UN taskforce established to support electoral processes and constitution-making. It also provides an incentive for external financial assistance, which would increase the chances of timely polls.

This is especially important given the potential economic difficulty the government may face due to the disruption of oil exports since Sudan’s civil war broke out in April 2023. These exports account for 90% of South Sudan’s total revenue.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Time running out’ in war-torn Sudan as access to aid restricted, WHO warns

Sudan’s government is the guarantor of crude oil transfers from South Sudan to Port Sudan via pipelines that pass through Sudanese territory. But Sudan has said it can’t fulfil its obligation due to pipeline blockages and damages exacerbated by the war.

Attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the ongoing Red Sea crisis also affect oil exports, pushing up insurance costs for shipments along that route and slowing oil transport by sea. All these challenges have cut South Sudan’s revenue, with knock-on effects for funding election-related activities.

The dialogue and subsequent decisions should also be informed by local experts from the Political Parties Council, National Elections Commission and National Constitutional Review Commission. These bodies weren’t in place during the first dialogue. Their staff, together with South Sudan’s partners, can provide technical guidance, including on the resources required to complete key election tasks.

This approach could also lead to fewer controversial and unrealistic political decisions that result in disappointment when they are unmet. DM

Selam Tadesse Demissie, Researcher, Horn of Africa Security Analysis, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Addis Ababa.

First published by ISS Today.

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